Energy Policy the 'Minnesota Way'- Part 1: The Early Days
In this 3 part blog series Megan Hoye interviews long-time efficiency leader and CEE President Sheldon Strom and energy policy expert and CEE Director of Policy and Communications Mike Bull to take a deeper look at the state’s energy policy history and provide insight into the 'Minnesota Way' – the “secret sauce” that distinguishes energy policy making in Minnesota.
Minnesota has long been in the forefront of states taking leadership actions to reduce the environmental impacts of their energy use. As described in a recent New York Times article:
“While other states and critics of the Obama administration have howled about complying with its proposed rule slashing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, Minnesota has been reining in its utilities’ carbon pollution for decades — not painlessly, but without breaking much of a sweat, either.
Today, Minnesota gets more of its power from wind than all but four other states, and the amount of coal burned at power plants has dropped by more than a third from its 2003 peak. And while electricity consumption per person has been slowly falling nationwide for the last five years, Minnesota’s decline is steeper than the average.”
“Without Much Straining, Minnesota Reins In Its Utilities’ Carbon Emissions” New York Times, July 17, 2014.
As noted in the New York Times article, Minnesota has made enacting and implementing progressive clean energy policies look easy. However, the many advocates who have been working on these issues here in Minnesota know that it was much more difficult than it may have appeared.
Megan: Minnesota has a particular style of policy development. The ‘Minnesota Way’ is a term I hear thrown around with increasing frequency. What defines this approach?
When we started working on these issues 35 years ago, things were much harder. We didn’t really know how to do energy efficiency, but that was ok – no one else did either. The utilities fought us tooth and nail, and regulators paid little attention. Over time, though, a number of advocates, utilities, the business community, etc. learned to work together in a more cooperative manner, listening to each other, looking at the data and the facts, addressing all legitimate concerns and building broad-based support to create lasting solutions. It’s not rocket science, but it is important –fighting with one another doesn’t get us where we want to go.
Starting in the mid 1980’s, Sheldon and Bill Grant, currently the Deputy Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Commerce, Division of Energy Resources, but formerly the Associate Executive Director of the Izaak Walton League (and before that, a leader on energy efficiency and resource planning at the Minnesota Department of Public Service), were really the two in the field who put this cooperative, fact-based approach into practice.
As I watched Sheldon and Bill work on these issues together, over the years I began to recognize three core components of the ‘Minnesota Way’ of energy policy making. First, ground conversations in fact. This allows interested parties to grapple with concrete issues, rather than opinions. Second is something called “cooperative listening,” which involves engaging in iterative, good faith conversations with interested parties, including and especially those with differing views. Finally, focus on the broad public interest. Work together on crafting creative and innovative solutions and goals that advance the broad public interest – homeowners, the environment, the economy, the business community – rather than any particular private or limited interest.
Together, these three core principles have helped establish a cooperative and progressive framework for energy policy making in Minnesota. As we see in that New York Times article, this approach leads to solutions that have the best and longest lasting impact.
Megan: What motivated CEE to take this approach? Was there a pivotal point at which consensus-building opportunities started to grow?
Integrated resource planning, which required utilities to take a comprehensive look at planning to meet customer needs in a least cost way, and financial incentives for utility energy efficiency achievements were enacted in Minnesota in the 1980’s – Bill Grant was the leading advocate for those advancements at the time. In the 1990’s NSP (now a subsidiary of Xcel) – largely because of Deb Sundin and Kevin Lawless, utility directors that pioneered energy efficiency activities in Minnesota – decided that if NSP was going to do energy efficiency it needed to be done well. Deb and Kevin looked for opportunities to integrate energy efficiency into resource planning and began to treat efficiency as a real resource rather than just something good to do.
Martha Hewett and I started to engage with them by analyzing the energy savings NSP was achieving and recommending changes and new programs that could help grow those savings. We kept concluding that it would make more sense for us to use fewer power plants, but we needed the utilities to see this. Facts were a good tactic. The alleged concern at the time was that energy efficiency was too costly. By highlighting the analytic work Martha and I were doing, we were able to turn the tables on the utilities to show that efficiency was, in fact, the lowest cost option.
A good early example of the “Minnesota Way” involved NSP’s large commercial lighting program. At the time, programs like this were only happening on the west coast. As we went back and forth with NSP, sharing our analysis and recommendations, they started doing a really good job with this program. We made sure to tell them and their regulators that and our positive comments surprised them and encouraged them to work more closely with us. Without intending to, I think that was the beginning of the Minnesota Way. We were focused on outcomes, not ideology. Once you look at the facts, and what it costs to do something, you can often start to find more consensus.
Read on to part two of Energy Policy the 'Minnesota Way'- Mike gives his answer on how the 'Minnesota Way' got started and we move on to talk about the Modern Era of Minnesota's energy policy.